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Published: Jun 5, 2005
Modified: Jun 6, 2005 6:42 AM
Ok, there are really only 94
Mergers and other moves mean fewer make our list of the state's public companies. More changes are coming


Staff Illustration by Tim Lee



North Carolina is losing a source of prestige and wealth.

It is losing public-company headquarters. The number of North Carolina-based firms that trade on major stock exchanges has declined by a fifth in the past four years as businesses moved away, sold or ceased trading.

It's a movement that continues to gain momentum. In the past three months, Summit Properties of Charlotte sold to a Houston real-estate competitor, SpectraSite of Cary agreed to be bought by a cell-tower industry rival in Boston, and Closure Medical of Raleigh on Friday was taken over by pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson of New Brunswick, N.J.

Indeed, mergers are a major reason for the headquarters decline. Bankruptcies and rising expenses have also contributed. Some companies have decided to go private to avoid the accounting and legal costs that come with being publicly traded.

Actions by companies in the state reflect national trends. The repercussions are decidedly local.

"Corporate headquarters matter," said Tony Copeland, assistant secretary for business, industry and international trade at the N.C. Department of Commerce. "They bring a tremendous amount of focus and attention of top management."

Companies develop a certain kinship to the communities where they are based and are more likely to invest in local schools, the arts and nonprofits. Progress Energy, the only Fortune 500 company based in the Triangle, last year contributed $9.2 million to North Carolina groups through its foundation and other giving. Almost three-quarters of that stayed in the Raleigh region.

Public companies, too, bring global cachet. They attract investors from around the world and typically get more publicity simply because their operations are open to scrutiny. That helps spread the word about corporate homes in locales such as Salisbury and Matthews, which typically aren't uttered in the same breath as New York, San Francisco or Boston.

Then there's the money. Headquarters jobs often pay more than those at manufacturing or research outposts. For one thing, the top executives work there, and they can draw millions in salary, bonus and stock options.

There's a trickle-down effect. Higher-paid workers buy bigger homes. They spend more money at restaurants and stores. They support local organizations.

Even so, "the economic impacts are certainly quite disparate, depending on the type of company," said Donald A. Kirkman, president of the Piedmont Triad Partnership, which represents a 12-county region around Greensboro.

Many headquarters pale in significance to IBM, for example, which isn't based in North Carolina but employs almost 13,000 in the state. Of the 94 companies on the N&O 100, only five report more North Carolina employees.

In fact, all the companies combined employed only about 205,600 in North Carolina. That's a fraction of their total employment and a smaller percentage of the state's 3.87 million jobs.

And consider: The state's richest man is James Goodnight, chief executive of Cary-based SAS Institute -- the world's largest private software company.

Still, recruiting headquarters is a top priority for many economic developers. Winning publicly-traded ones is a bonus.

North Carolina has had success.

R.H. Donnelley, publisher of Yellow Pages directories in 19 states, moved its headquarters to Cary from New York in 2004. In March, BioDelivery Sciences International, which develops drug-delivery technologies, moved to Morrisville from New Jersey. Tekelec, a California phone-gear maker, is moving cross country to plant its corporate flag in the Triangle. They're all publicly traded.

Another one could arrive soon.

The state lost a public headquarters when Standard Commercial of Wilson merged last month with Dimon of Virginia. But the new tobacco company, Alliance One International, needs a new home and is considering a headquarters in the Triangle.

Newcomers haven't come fast enough to offset the losses of other public companies swept up by national business trends.

Bankruptcies increased during the economic downturn, eliminating some firms. Since 2001, more than 148,000 U.S. companies have filed for bankruptcy. Oakwood Homes of Greensboro in 2002 filed for bankruptcy. It was purchased by Clayton Homes of Tennessee, a subsidiary of billionaire investor Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, last year.

Other North Carolina businesses turned to mergers to strengthen their operations. Such transactions picked up in frequency as companies sought ways to cut costs and increase market share. Blue Rhino of Winston-Salem sold itself in April 2004 to Ferrellgas Partners of Kansas, a move it says has paid off.

"We have access to greater resources," said Tim Scronce, president of the Blue Rhino division. His company has cut about 35 percent of administrative expenses because of new efficiencies, increasing profit margins.

Reeds Jewelers of Wilmington and SciQuest of Morrisville joined a growing number of companies last year that gave up on being public. The costs of more lawyers and accountants -- necessary after efforts to stem fraud -- simply were too great for smaller public businesses.

"Do we miss being a public company?" said Stephen J. Wiehe, chief executive of SciQuest, which develops software. "No."

Business recruiters must contend with all those trends. They also must battle rivals across state lines and around the globe.

Companies "have over the years closed manufacturing plants. They've moved some manufacturing to China. They've outsourced their customer service functions," said John H. Boyd, president of The Boyd Co., a Princeton, N.J., firm that helps businesses decide where to locate.

"What's left on the table for a company to re-engineer themselves? The company headquarters," he said.

The fight for new industry has become fierce, with millions in tax breaks and other incentives at stake. Raleigh last month lost a bid to woo a second Fortune 500 company headquarters that promised more than 1,000 jobs.

The company, secretly searching for a site under the code name "Project Darwin," decided to go somewhere with more large headquarters. Among the finalists: Atlanta, Richmond, Va., and possibly Charlotte.

Cities such as Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh should have an edge as other companies shop for new digs, Boyd said.

In an analysis of 50 metro area locations, he found that the three North Carolina regions ranked among the lowest for cost of real estate, labor and energy. Traditional headquarters cities such as New York and Washington were among the most expensive.

Truth is, no one is banking on new headquarters alone. The Commerce Department's Copeland and others want to attract any operations with big promise and also ensure that home-grown companies thrive.

Helping a company grow, it seems, is much simpler than getting one to plant new roots.

And having many in an area makes wooing others easier.

"I'm not saying there's a herd mentality," Kirkman of the Triad said. "But you rarely have a company headquarters that wants to be a pioneer."

Staff writer Jonathan B. Cox can be reached at 836-4948 or jcox@newsobserver.com.



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